One thing we all learned during the COVID pandemic is that school matters. Test scores fell after the year of interrupted schooling in 2020-21, and anyone who was in the classroom during the 2021-22 school year can testify to the fact that students who were not in school the year before missed a lot of learning about positive school habits and behaviors. I suppose it’s good news, in a way. Most of us who work in schools are motivated at least in part by a desire to make the world better, and it’s nice to know that our work actually makes a difference in what young people know and can do.
LOW HISTORY SCORES
Since teaching actually seems to make a difference in what students learn, I think we should not be surprised by the latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which shows that eighth graders’ proficiency in history is falling from an already low baseline. This decline isn’t solely due to the pandemic, but the explanation is the same: kids don’t learn what they’re not taught. And many elementary schools have basically not been teaching history for some time now.
The main reason for that is state testing. State tests are a crucial tool for gathering data about student performance and holding schools accountable for results – this is not an anti-testing blog post. But state testing focuses school time, attention, and resources on the tested subjects, to the detriment of non-tested subjects. And for years now the tested subjects have mostly been math and reading. So everything else, including history/social studies, gets squeezed out of the school day, especially in the early grades. At 4QM we know from our work with a wide range of schools that in many places social studies is lightly taught or entirely ignored in the primary grades. (We did some work for a public school in an urban district that was having trouble when their fifth graders were reading a book set in the Great Depression and literally had no idea about the context for the story.)
The bitter irony here is that it’s now very clear that “reading” is not a discrete skill that can be taught or tested in isolation from general knowledge about the world. If we want students to learn “reading” we should actually teach them history. But that’s a different blog post.
The point of this post is that if we want eighth graders to know something about American (or world) history, we need to teach it. And these test results make it clear that just starting in middle school is insufficient. Students need to start building their historical knowledge early, because knowledge in any field is cumulative.* Jumping right into American history in grade six or seven with no previous study of history at all will likely produce much less learning than providing students with a coherent history curriculum throughout their elementary school years.
LET’S DO IT RIGHT
Teaching history well in the early grades can be challenging, in part because elementary teachers are generalists, most of whom do not have strong academic backgrounds in history themselves. In the middle grades, teacher “teaming” means that social studies is often taught by teachers certified in something else. And even those middle school teachers who are certified in social studies need years of reading to become truly fluent in their content. (Contrast their situation with math teachers: anyone who majored in math in college already knows all the content they’ll need to teach middle school math. A history major simply can’t know their whole curriculum deeply without significant further study.)
We won’t overcome that challenge by transforming teacher preparation — that would take decades even if it were possible. Instead, we need to give elementary and middle school teachers high quality social studies curriculum, and the intellectual tools to help them learn and understand it themselves and teach it to their students in ways that are engaging, powerful, and meaningful. We think the Four Question Method provides those tools, and we’re writing curriculum based on them. Our Four Questions are simple enough for young students to understand, but powerful enough to drive deep learning on all grade levels. They provide a tool for curriculum internalization by adults, and a planning schema for designing units and lessons for students.
We describe all this in detail in our book, and we’ve written extensively about the method and its application in our blog. We’re hopeful that the next few years will see new attention paid to history and social studies education, and we’re excited to be a part of that movement. Because one thing is absolutely certain: if schools don’t teach history, kids won’t learn it.
*Hirsch, E.D. The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, Doubleday 1996, p. 20.